Tuesday, January 31, 2006

"Should I up the stakes?" and other meanderings

One hundred books in three hundred and sixty-five days. One book every 3.7 days, approximately.

Some would say, "Are you mad?"

Some would say, "Don't you think you could spend the time writing your own literary masterpiece?"

Some would say, "Why don't you just wait for the movie?" These I would drop-kick into the deep edges of the forest.

I think I can do better.

New goal: 146 books in 2006. Note the cheap-o, cheesy tie-in with the year. I'm all Velveeta, baby.

Why 146? I know I can read one hundred. That isn't a challenge. I'm already at 13 for the month of January. While things will slow down as the semester progresses - tomes traded for argumentative research papers, novels exchanged for nasty reports - once I'm finished grading and teaching I will have three months to fill with blissful reading. Preferably on a hammock with a large glass of vodka lemonade.

13. "The March" ~ E.L. Doctorow

From the book's insert: "The author [...] has given us a magisterial work with an enormous cast of unforgettable characters..."

This is precisely why I disliked the novel.

Doctorow's effort is grandiose. A novel about the many people whose lives were changed by the Civil War, both black and white, rich and poor. According to my Gone With the Wind addiction (former, thank you very much), I should have fallen in love with this book.

Unfortunately, I felt that he reached too far. The war cliches - women hiding silver, freed slaves confused by their freedom, polite yet hardened soldiers - reach epic proportions. While some details are fresh and welcomed, the majority of this book has the "been there, seen that" air about it. The numerous characters, rather than give the feeling of a torment of unbelievable proportions, creates an atmosphere of disposability. One character is introduced, then tossed aside. While this is symbolic of war, it is also a done-to-death symbolic device.

1.5 out of 5.0 Southern Kamikazes.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

12. "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close" ~ Jonathan Safran Foer

I think we've reached an age of cynicism, whether it's doubting the authenticity of a memoir writer's tales or the abilities of our chosen leaders. The accusations read like finger jabs as exclamation points -- "She was shopping for SHOES while this happened!" "He didn't have a BACKGROUND in disasters!" "Her dad never KILLED the cow with a pitchfork!" "He was only in jail for THREE days!" "The FBI was using the WRONG picture the ENTIRE time!"

I assume that much of this is the post-honeymoon of 9-11. After singing "Tie a Yellow Ribbon" and raising the American flag and tearfully attending funerals of eighteen- and nineteen-year-olds, the blue state murmurs became an underlying hum.

Like the whispers in "Lost," you can understand them if you listen closely. Besides the accusations, there are many questions. And, as is typical of humans, it comes back to "me, me, me." Why am I here? What is the purpose of life, specifically, what is my purpose in this life? Or is it possible that all of this paper-pushing, all of this monotony is for naught?

Safran Foer's novel has taken on these questions and so much more. Love, passion, the difference between the two. Anger, hatred, the difference between the two. The differences not being so different, and the similarities infinite.

Oskar Schell, a nine-year-old super-nerd, finds a key and thinks it is a final test from his father (who died in the 9-11 attacks). Precocious is an understatement; it took me five pages to get past the blind ADD-like rants of this character, especially because I listen to it all too often at home. But, oh, is it worth it.

Safran Foer has created a masterful story and embellished it with the "post-modern" twist of photos (see Eggers). The last collage made me weep and I'm far from PMSing. I still get goosebumps thinking of it.

Oskar's journey would be worthless if not for the clever letters telling the history of his grandparents, a story of its own. The weaving of these parallel lives and symbols is breath-taking. Upon closing the book, I stared at the cover for several minutes, enjoying the after-buzz. Books: Sometimes Better Than Sex.

One quibble keeps it from a perfect score, but it's minor (the disappearance of a character, which could be construed as symbolic of the entire piece).

4.99 out of 5.0 Bronx Terrace Cocktails

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

AXED - "The Sisters Mortland"

Five pages. Glanced at BN.com. "The same people who bought this book also purchased... Nicholas Sparks."

Next book, please.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

11. "You Shall Know Our Velocity!" ~ Dave Eggers

Eggers first book, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, dropped him dead center on the literary world map. Finally, a Gen. X-er who can write. Branching into fiction, Eggers proves once again that he is a master.

Velocity introduces Will and his friend, Hands, who decide to travel around the world in a week and distribute $32,000. Throw in a dead friend, Jack, and travel problems, and you have another "heartbreaking work of staggering genius."

What makes Eggers's work so lovely to read is his attention to the details that my generation finds fascinating. Whether it's the ironic take on third world countries (a woman's teeth are extraordinarily white and beautiful, so they want to give her money) or pop culture references (kids emulating World Pro Wrestling), it created a visceral response in me. "Yes, I totally know what he's talking about."

Midway through the book, just as the stakes are being set higher (how will they choose who gets money and who doesn't, and what moral values does this exhibit?), there is a jump to Hands's point of view after-the-fact. For me, this was more like a chasm. It gave away the ending, it made them both seem like horrible characters, it went too far in quirky style. Left out, I would have liked the book more, but Eggers pushes the limits of language and style, and this was his experiment. It didn't work for me.

A great quote that deals with a lot of current events: "...the strange thing about this business is that nonfiction, when written well, is unequivocally more powerful than fiction, because if all details and evocations are equal -- meaning, if the writing brings alive the people and places described with equal skill, then the story that is true will evoke a stronger response in the reader, for the same reasons that we feel stronger about a real person than a fictional person, or a person we've met in person, versus a person we haven't... [it] just has to hit us at a more visceral level... those who prefer fiction to nonfiction prefer game shows to the news."

Eggers took a risk with this book, both in format (photos to represent ideas, a pretend chapter/letter to the book editor) and in prose. He had me at the "tannin-tinted" river.

4.25 out of 5.0 Black Velvets.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

"How do you rate these?" and other questions... ANSWERED

"How do you choose books?"

Most of the time, I cruise the Amazon or Barnes and Snob-le site. Otherwise, I listen to the wise people at these different links. Finally, I have a fantastic librarian friend who saves all of the new 2006 releases in a pile just for me.

"How do you critique books? Why did you choose this scale?"

I base my reaction to books on a five-part reaction. First, and most important, am I enjoying myself? There are so many books out there that kill that spark -- and we wonder why more kids choose television over books, video games over books, sex over books. Actually, I'm okay with that last one.

Next, I look at the craft, mainly plot and characterization. I am a firm believer in the plot-driven vs. character-driven theory of literature. Of course you need both elements for a fantastic read, but every single book can be lumped into one of those two categories.

Finally, I think of it in two scales, microME and macroME. MacroME is how this affects the world around, well, *me*. Will this influence people to give up vacation days for the lady with cancer? MicroME is the other term for the "Gone With the Wind" syndrome. I've read that novel 50+ times between the ages of 12 and 21. Do I feel that love with the critiqued novel? Meh. Sometimes.

I chose this scale because it was how I was critiquing books in my head anyway. And I like alcohol.

"Are you an alcoholic?"

Perhaps. Pass the vodka and let me think about it.

No. Alcoholic jokes are never funny. Except when they are.

I am a cocktail aficionada. Alcohol is one way that I deal with chronic pain issues. I also exercise, but "3.5 out of 5.0 situps" just isn't as fun.

"I know who you really are."

Indeed. Then you will respect my privacy and allow me to meet my goal of a hundred books this year. Muchas gracias.

"Can I link to you?"

Absolutely. Please let me know so I can return the favor.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

10. "Wild Meat and the Bully Burgers" ~ Lois-Ann Yamanaka

Set in Hawaii, this compilation of short stories covers the life of a young Japanese girl who, based on her surroundings and family, struggles against becoming haole, or immersed in white culture.

What a fascinating book, I thought. Even the way that it is shaped, like a square rather than the typical rectangle, intrigued me. But by the third chapter (or short story), the novelty has worn as thin as the pineapple slices her grandmother cut.

The author's insistence on using the "pidgin" English, which is formally known as Hawaiian Creole English, becomes a hindrence to the story rather then helping develop it. It became annoying, like if someone wrote a book about a stutterer, and you had to weed through all of the "b-b-b-b-b-buts." There are no harsh feelings toward the subject matter, but when it becomes too much work to understand (or, in this case, to convince), the mind grows weary and thinks of stereotypical Hawaii... sugar sand, extinct volcanos, hula dancing. Unfortunately, that's not the writer's intention.

1.0 out of 5.0 Blue Hawaiians

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

9. "Teacher Man" ~ Frank McCourt

Frank McCourt, author of the Pulitzer prize-winning novel, Angela's Ashes, writes what is called his first memoir. While some would argue that all or most of Ashes and 'Tis are autobiographical, Teacher Man separates itself in its span of McCourt's thirty-plus years of teaching in several New York schools.

His self-deprecating sense of humor gains too much momentum. By the time I was two-thirds of the way through the book, I began to dislike him almost as much as he seemed to dislike himself. "Who would want to have sex with him?" I wondered, even as he described his own pathetic attempts at grab-ass.

However, if you are in the teaching profession, you will nod repeatedly as you read. The stilted begging of students, the tilting chairs, the attitudes... it is all woefully familiar, yet still entertaining. Without the depth of his other books' issues (poverty, death, redemption), Teacher Man seems like a quick dart throw at a bullseye, only hitting a double 14 instead.

3.0 out of 5.0 iced coffee fillips.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

8. "A Long Way Down" ~ Nick Hornby

Four people, tired of struggling through life, go to the top of a fifteen story building known for its suicide success rate and meet each other. Pizza, talking, and craziness follows.

Each character's voice is unique in style and form. One even blanks out swear words (f___ ing). Where can four suicidal people go? The plot is fluffy and semi-philosophical and hilarious. Perfect summer reading. Except it's not summer and I'm trying to avoid work. There... in other words, perfect mindless reading, because sometimes it is just the escape that works for the reader.

3.75 out of 5.0 London Martinis.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

7. "The Tender Bar" ~ J.R. Moehringer

We went there for everything we needed. we went there when thirsty, of course, and when hungry, and when dead tired. We went there when happy, to celebrate, and when sad, to sulk. We went there after weddings and funerals, for something to settle our nerves, and always for a shot of courage just before. We went there when we didn't know what we needed, hoping someone might tell us. We went there when looking for love, or sex, or trouble, or for someone who had gone missing, because sooner or later everyone turned up there. Most of all we went there when we needed to be found.

A beautifully written memoir about being a boy who is forced to be a man when his father deserts his mother. The bar becomes his source for male role models, for good or for ill. Lyrical and heartfelt. I just hope he's not pulling a Helget or a Frey.

5.0 out of 5.0 Black and Tans.

Monday, January 09, 2006

6. "Never Let Me Go" ~ Kazuo Ishiguro

Imagine a future where children are brought up in schools only to serve as "parts" for other people's deteriorating bodies. Never Let Me Go follows the lives of three students, told through Kathy's point of view, which is both haughty and just unreliable enough to question her memories.

The plot is fascinating, reminding me of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale in its thoughtful inquiry of ethics. Ishiguro's writing flows smoothly, with beautiful description and imagery. However, several intriguing arguments are interrupted when Kathy spins on her heel and stalks off. While this is true to many people's character, it is not expected of the Kathy presented as inquisitive and curious. This is the major flaw of this novel because we expect her to at least wonder why no one tries to escape his or her fate, but the subject is never brought up. If not for this one point, I would have closed the book with a satisfied sigh.

4.75 out of 5.0 White Islands.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

5. “Specimen Days” ~ Michael Cunningham

Beneath the title for this book, it says: "A Novel." I call bullshit. This is actually a set of three novellas with the common themes of technology and its effect on society. Or, as I have experienced in the three wrenching days of reading this book, boredom and its effect on my sleep patterns.

I loved "The Hours." I adored it so much, in fact, that I refused to see the movie. Cunningham seemed to overreach when writing this book. While "The Hours" was an ode to Virginia Woolf, "Specimen Days" gives props to Walt Whitman. Worthy individuals, but I found the plots implausible, especially in relation to the allegories set up by Cunningham.

Perhaps I was too jittery after coming off of a good-book binge, but "Specimen Days" felt like jogging in wet cement. I got a workout, but it was exhausting.

1.5 out of 5.0 Belmont Cocktails.

Friday, January 06, 2006

4. “The Girls” Guide to Hunting and Fishing” ~ Melissa Bank

Rather than string along a number of plot points of a single character's life, Bank's chose to relay Jane's story through a cluster of short stories. Brava.

Each story stands on its own, threaded with beautiful details (like the selections of food that go with the mood) and amazing dialogue. The book should be read for the dialogue alone.

However, I felt like I knew Jane a little too well, not that I had met her before, but I have read her before. Bank's reminds me of Aimee Bender and Lorrie Moore, especially when she writes anagrams and twistful/wistful banter.Still, I finished it in a day and look forward to reading more of her work.

4.5 out of 5.0 Vodka Chillers.

3. "Middlesex" ~ Jeffrey Eugenides

Author of The Virgin Suicides, Eugenides leaped from a novella of creepy fascination to an epic saga spanning the webs of sexuality, geography, and incest.

Loved it.

Told in the first person omniscient POV - via Calliope Stephanides - this book describes the descent of genetics through three generations, culminating in the birth of a chromosomed-"defective" child: Calliope. Of course, she/he is a hermaphrodite, adding the not-so-subtle pun to the novel's title.

The depth of this world is perfect. When Eugenides waxes philosophic about the nature of Playboy and Hugh Hefner in the early 1970s, I buy it. It is the "dedication to detail," to steal a former professor's words, that makes this book so delightful. I wondered whether the author had to do years worth of research, but then I realized I didn't care. I believed it whether or not it was factual.

There are two WTF moments in the book where I thought Eugenides stretched plot plausability, but other than that, I found it an intriguing look at one family's Detroit dynasty.

4.25 out of 5.0 Bonapartes Secret Greek Battles.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

2. “Vernon God Little” ~ DBC Pierre

You will either laugh out loud or want to blind yourself via a sunscreen bath.

Vernon God Little is the first novel by DBC Pierre, a fake name that covers for an Australian who writes a book about a small southern Texas town. To give him the benefit of the doubt, he did live in Mexico and Texas. However, this book is a political and cultural satire of the American judicial system and social culture.

Vernon Little's best friend Jesus killed several classmates in a Columbine-type massacre. Ha ha, right? If you keep an open mind, following Vernon's diatribe on the town and its occupants, it can be humorous.

Personally, it took force-reading to get me through the first 30 pages. But it did pay off as Vernon's character develops.

3.0 out of 5.0 Rearbusters.

Monday, January 02, 2006

1. "The Myth of You and Me" ~ Leah Stewart

The gloved hands clenched in a death grip on this book's cover may turn off a lot of guys, quick to judge this as "chick lit." They are partially right.

This novel is about best friends and the challenges of that relationship, something many of us in my blogging community are dealing with right now. In particular, this is about the loss of a best friend and how one can never run away from the past.

"Sometimes we forget that an important friendship, and its loss, can be as crucial a part of our lives as any romance. This story is a love story, really, it just takes place between two best friends. The tale is epic in its proportions-- uncertainty, regret, the mind reading that comes from knowing someone so well that you aren't even sure if a memory is yours or hers." (B&N)

But the tale takes a strange turn about 2/3 of the way, where the coincidences are too unbelievable and the pat, predictable ending doesn't satisfy. I wanted some anguish, some full-out fighting (maybe even hair-pulling). But Cameron and Sonia settle into each other, which, really, is very realistic for any relationship, but a bit boring to read.

4.0 out of 5.0 Dirty Girl Scouts.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

"The greatest university of all is a collection of books." ~ Thomas Carlyle

I eat books. Not literally, of course, but rather quickly. Whether walking the dog, mopping the floor, or running on the treadmill, I have a book between my fingers. I will read until the hardcover plastic and paperback spines have rubbed away my fingerprints.

This is an experiment. I am going to limit my food and increase my language intake. Instead of turning to ice cream, I'll turn pages. You'll get to monitor the result and either openly mock me or hop on my boa-tails.

You will benefit from my honest critiques of literature, both modern and classic. Or, if not that, you will get a recipe for a new mixed cocktail. And I'll always be open to new suggestions.